INTRODUCTION BY CHRISTINA MACSWEENEY
The translation of Julián Herbert’s short story collection, Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino was a journey I undertook over many months, from the first ecstatic reading in Spanish to the final correction to the proofs in English. It was a journey that took me back to well remembered places (via a box set of Tarantino movies and a DVD of the seventies cult film, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, an early narco classic). It also, like all good journeys, presented me with many wonderful surprises, situations I hadn’t foreseen on the itinerary when I first opened the book.
This is the third work by Julián Herbert that I’ve translated, and on each occasion I’ve been invited to enter a world that is apparently quite different to mine, invited to understand that world and the brilliant literary mind that created it, to dwell there for a while. The world of Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino is populated by a wide range of flawed but also deeply human characters. And it is part of Herbert’s skill that their humanity shines through. He observes them with a cool, non-judgmental eye, often with great humor and, for readers, offers the possibility of sharing the journey taken by his thoughts during the creative process.
As I re-watched (and re-watched again) those Tarantino movies, I was struck by the meticulous construction of the mise-en-scène and choreography: the blood that seems to splatter the camera is too red to be real and fight scenes could just as easily be seen in a contemporary ballet production. Something very similar occurs in Herbert’s stories. Where there is violence, it’s stylized, choreographed and that fact that allows us to inspect it without disgust, to consider how it fits into the larger picture of human social relationships. And this being Julián Herbert, all these observations are presented with an equal measure of intelligence and humor; at times simultaneously, as when the pedantic film critic of the title story expounds his theory of parody and the sublime in the work of Tarantino while being held captive in the underground hideout of a drug baron.
And the story published here, “Z”, depicting a dystopian world in which a strange epidemic has devastating effects, is certainly not without humor. Images that stand out in my mind are the busloads of the faithful turning up outside Mexico City’s cathedral to pray for the salvation of the world, only to be devoured by carnivorous “flowers” or the skateboarders who risk their lives to leap over those “flowers”, while the narrator lays bets on who will emerge unharmed. The darkness of the humor, with its profound understanding of human nature, brings this improbable world alive beyond the page, and perhaps even more clearly now as we face our own dystopias with whatever humor we can muster.
– Christina MacSweeney
Translator of Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino
My Therapist Is a Literal Zombie
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“Z” by Julián Herbert, translated by Christina MacSweeney
I communicate with my psychoanalyst by phone. My psychoanalyst is called Tadeo. Tadeo pretends to be an impartial judge, but I can see he’s in favor of me allowing myself to be bitten. That’s no surprise. He was first eaten five months ago.
“It’s not a matter of ethics,” he says. “It’s about solidarity. Which in your case, at an existential level, means continuing to be alone.”
I almost burst out laughing: he’s talking about existentialism as if he were alive. He’s a good National University kid. I change the subject so as not to appear to be making light of his situation.
“Why not come upstairs so we can talk face-to-face? Or at least mouth to ear.”
“We are mouth to ear.”
“I mean through the door.”
“No, my friend,” he replies in an extremely somber tone, with the insincere serenity imparted by his academic training. “I’ve made it a rule not to smell my patients.”
“Except for Delfina,” I say, hoping to provoke him.
Tadeo clears his throat to cover a brief silence, then responds: “Delfina has no smell now. And she’s not my patient any longer.” For the last year I’ve been living in the Hotel Majestic, located on one side of the Zócalo in Mexico City. Once a week, Tadeo comes around and does a home psychoanalysis session. At first he used to come up to my room on the fourth floor, we’d make ourselves comfortable (he’d sit on a poorly upholstered chair; I’d perch on the bed) and chat. We generally left the television on to provide some background noise and deaden the carnivorous clacking of the guest in the next room.
Tadeo was the most sensible man I’d ever met until Delfina (I’ve never seen her, but I imagine she’s good-looking) seduced him and, as a sort of tribute, took a few mouthfuls of his left forearm, thus infecting him and causing (without the shadow of a doubt, unintentionally) six months of therapy to go up in smoke. Since then, Tadeo and I have held our sessions via the insipid phone in the lobby.
“Human,” I say.
“What you mean is that Delfina has no human smell now. Wouldn’t it be just the same if you called from your office?”
“Human, yes . . . Honestly, coming here isn’t just an overreaction. Who’d connect the call? There’s not a soul left in the lobby.”
He talks about professionalism, but he was having sex with his clients, eventually fell for one of them, and, because he was in love, allowed himself to be transformed into a beast. Or, not a total beast: a cannibal in transition. I’ve said this to him, and he acknowledges it, then sadly adds:
“Maybe I should be your patient.”
It’s a pleasantry. We both know that I’m no good; just a frightened, egotistical master of ceremonies, incapable of helping anyone, even when half the human race is mutating toward death or depression.
Tadeo claims it’s not a matter of ethics but solidarity. The truth is that lately it’s been a matter of food. I venture out to try to find some after dark. There are hardly any mature somnambulists around at that time: they prefer to hunt during the day, although twilight is their favorite hour.
(There’s no reliable data, but it appears that the prolonged ingestion of human flesh eventually leads to—among other things—retinal destruction: bright light is painful, and in the darkness they are like moles. When they go completely blind, they become what I call carnivorous flowers: groaning invalids trailing along the ground. They are still dangerous but strictly sedentary, which makes them relatively simple to avoid.)
In the early days, I was afraid to go outside. I survived on beyond-sell-by-date leftovers from the hotel kitchen: greenish cold cuts, rancid cheese, chocolate, frozen soup, dried fruit . . . However, as the months have passed, I’ve gained enough confidence not only to make forays to the local stores for provisions but also to have something resembling a social life. My greatest success in that respect has been acting as the emcee of the skateboarding competitions on Eugenia. My alimentary excursions provide everything I need: from Pachuca empanadas to granola bars, gallon bottles of mineral water to free liquor. The other day, behind the counter of a former print shop, I found a bag of marijuana and another containing what looked like psychotropic pills. I returned them to their place: when it comes to illegal substances, I’m prejudiced.
As long as no one kills me, everything is mine. The country has become a minefield of teeth, but it’s also a bargain basement. Thanks to the fantastical efforts of people whose business instincts drive them to do their duty each day, I enjoy a few of the old services that, in some unconscious way, used to make it pleasant to live among humans: fresh Tetra Brik milk in the mornings, for example. A delivery truck still supplies the 7-Eleven on the corner of Moneda and Lic. Verdad, despite the fact that the store has been looted four times in the last week and no one works there anymore: just a few junkie- faced dispatchers with bite marks on their backs who’ll take your money as soon as they’ve ransacked what little remains in the establishment, all the while shaking like ex-boxers with Parkinson’s. A few nights ago I came across an amazing windfall: moldy falafel and hummus, two pounds of pistachios seasoned with garlic and hot chili, half a strip of Coronado Popsicles, a bottle of Appleton Estate rum, and an iPod with—among other vaguely obscure gems— Smetana’s “From My Life” . . . I waited until sundown on Friday to celebrate my discovery. I’d decided to have a picnic: headphones on, I took my booty up to the terrace of the Majestic.
When I recount this episode to Tadeo, he falls back on the analytical approach he’s been using to treat me for just over a month.
“Have you thought about why you did that?”
“Like I said, to celebrate.”
“And you don’t think there might be some other reason? Some hidden vein of your need to put yourself in danger? Sunset is the very worst time for you.”
I try to change the subject again, but he won’t be sidetracked. “What do you think your neighbors made of it? Did anyone follow you to the terrace?”
“Yeah, one or two of them came to sniff me. Nothing unusual in that. But they did it politely, from a couple of tables away.”
With the exception of Lía, a perfectly human Jewish woman who lives on the second floor and whose only activity is foraging for pirated DVDs around the Palacio de Bellas Artes, all the other guests in the Majestic are bicarnal. While they haven’t yet come to the point of attacking me, their despairing, glazed expressions—exactly like the ones that used to make crack addicts stand out like sore thumbs—follow me everywhere.
Tadeo refuses to let the topic drop. “Did they say anything?”
He’s beginning to annoy me.
“I wasn’t taking much notice of them, because I was spying on the soldiers.”
“The ones who come around in the afternoon to take down the flag.”
It’s the same old routine every day: in the morning, just before sunrise, an armed patrol parades across the Zócalo, unfurling a green, white, and red flag. When it’s fully extended, they attach a strong rope and hoist it up a concrete-and-metal pole that’s maybe 150 feet high. After that, marching in step with the same panache they displayed on arrival, they leave. The flag, on the other hand, spends the whole day up there, fluttering majestically over thousands of walking corpses and the hundreds of mouths of carnivorous flowers huddled in clumps around the Catedral Metropolitana. In the evening, just before sundown, the soldiers return to collect the gigantic standard: they perform their military ballet in reverse order, detaching and furling the patriotic symbol with exasperating solemnity. Part of their task is to bear the requisite arms. They aren’t just for show: almost every day the soldiers find themselves having to carry out the irksome task of executing a couple of the vermin who, having lost whatever brains they ever had, attack the squad without the least respect for their uniforms. In the majority of such cases the soldiers fire at point-blank range, into the temple: the .45-caliber bullets sound dully on the paving stones and the flesh eaters’ heads plummet to perform the Last Slam Dance of Mexico City. Even so, the soldiers rarely manage to avoid being nibbled. That might be why more than one of them inevitably stumbles or others attempt to keep their wrists hidden, readjusting the dirty bandages covering their peeling skin.
Practically the whole army has been infected to some extent. There’s no telling if this has to do with the constant patrols or the lonely nights in the barracks. And although it’s true that they get the best vaccines, it’s also the case that cells of deserters spring up on a daily basis (or at least that’s what CNN says: the national media have disappeared), at the service of the worm catchers. Anything that still functions here relies on corrupting everything else until it becomes an allegorical mural of destruction.
As happens with any real epidemic, ours began with a few isolated cases, indistinguishable from the general sense of outrage transmitted by the now-defunct (or, depending on how you see it, omnipresent) tabloid press. First, a construction worker murdered his lover and workmate on a building site. The authorities found traces of charred human intestines and heart on a piece of sheet metal placed over hot coals. The accused committed suicide during the trial. A year later, a young poet and professor at the University of Puebla was imprisoned for freezing fragments of his dead girlfriend, which he used as an aid to masturbation. Despite the fact that no one could prove he’d either killed or eaten her, the symptoms this individual displayed in the following years left no room for doubt: he was one of the earliest manifestations of a new reality emerging on the margins, belonging to no kingdom or species. A walking virus.
The first person to come to Mexico to study the phenomenon was an English scientist named Frank Ryan, a virologist whose theory was, in broad outline, that the human species’s tremendous evolutionary leap was due not to mammalian DNA but to the high percentage of viral information in our genome. What at first seemed like a polemical hunch capable of explaining diseases like AIDS and cancer became Ryan’s Law of Evolution, or the Clinamen of the Species: every organic entropy will eventually lead to the triumph of an entity, neither living nor dead, whose only actions are to feed and reproduce by invading host organisms.
The worst thing about our epidemic, what distinguishes it from every other one, is its annoying slowness. Once an organism has been infected, it displays two defining characteristics: first, the irrepressible urge to feed on human flesh—a desire fueled by smell; second, a gradual multiple sclerosis directly proportional to the quantity of human tissue consumed. It is here that individual willpower affects the process, since the ability to administer consumption and restructure the appetite (ridiculous but accurate socioeconomic comparisons employed every day by the Ministry of Health) decides the rate of transformation.
As there is not yet an official list of the evolutionary stages of the organism, in my free time (I have a lot of it) I came up with four categories that I will set out here for the consideration of future carnico-vegetal kingdoms:
The transitioning cannibal is the phase in which my psychoanalyst finds himself. It can last anywhere from a week to a year depending on the individual’s medical history, dietary habits, and use of experimental drugs (“Retrovirals and antipsychotics have proved to be helpful,” Tadeo said the other day in a tone of academic enthusiasm). In this phase the infected subject loses many vital functions, and so needs little food. The subjects’ interaction with their environments is largely unchanged—members of this tribe include the president of Mexico and all his most prominent detractors, leaders of the opposition parties, many doctors and educators, and almost the whole of the business community. The only thing that distinguishes them from someone like me is that they display withdrawal symptoms—nausea, dizziness, hyperventilation—when the smell of real humans is in the air.
The bicarnal creature has reached the stage where it can scarcely resist the temptation to eat you, but, out of a sense of shame, makes its approach with a classic Mexican display of exaggerated good manners: “Would you mind if I accompanied you, sir?” or something similar. This phase is the most revolting of all. I call them bicarnal because, in order to satisfy their appetites, they eat pound after pound of beef, pork, or lamb. They are often found in ruined minimarkets, devouring frozen hamburgers straight from the package. Sitting on the terrace of the Majestic, I once watched a group of them in the center of the Zócalo sacrificing a fighting bull (God only knows where they found it) and then eating the raw flesh. I also call them junkies or worm catchers: their main posthuman activity is trading in corpses. They are the lords and masters of what was once the Historic Center of the capital.
The mature somnambulist walks with a slight hunch and is splattered with the blood of any living thing that has crossed its path. They are blind, feeble, never speak a single word, and, apart from their terrifying appearance, are in fact depressingly dull creatures. They are few in number: this is the shortest stage of the contagion process.
The flower, finally, is the immortal face of what we will all soon be: nascent vegetal man-eaters in a perpetual and pestilential state of putrefaction. As sclerosis overtakes them, mature somnambulists search with what lingering remnant of instinct they possess for a place to drop (un)dead. Although I’ve occasionally seen solitary carnivorous plants, they are almost always found in clusters, as if the urge toward gregariousness is the last human trait to disappear. I once saw one of those corpses standing upright. But normally they are horizontal, lying in the street or on the floors of their houses, on benches, the roofs of cars, in planters, fountains . . . Rather than actually move, they spasm, and in this way crawl over one another, biting anything that comes within range, including their fellow flowers, constantly opening and closing their jaws (clack, clack, clack, clack, clack), producing a kind of manic teletype sound that used to keep me awake in the early days, and later gave me dreadful nightmares. Now it’s a lullaby.
The largest flesh-flower garden in existence grew up around the Catedral Metropolitana, on the side of the Zócalo that the terrace of my hotel overlooks. How could it be otherwise in a Catholic country? Since new terminal cases of the epidemic arrive there around the clock, the amount of food they need also increases. Each morning, buses park in the Zócalo and disgorge groups of devout pilgrims, who pray to God for the salvation of the world and, as proof of their faith, attempt to cross the vegetable patch of teeth that separates them from the doors of the cathedral. Not a single one of them gets even halfway: they are devoured in a matter of minutes, thus keeping the garden well irrigated with blood. It would be the weirdest of tourist attractions if all of Mexico were not already a cemetery.
At the end of our session, Tadeo asks:
“Are you going to come around to do the installation? I’m in Condesa, just off Amsterdam, a block and a half from Insurgentes and Iztaccíhuatl. The nearest metro station is Chilpancingo. I’m on the sixth floor. It’s easy to find.”
I briefly think it over.
“We don’t have to be in the same room,” he insists. “We can do it through the intercom.”
“It’s not you that’s the problem. I’ve just never been that far.”
“Come on, man. You’ll be fine. I’m on the street every day and nothing happens to me.”
“Yes, but you have a car.”
“Think of it as a therapeutic exercise in socialization: one way or another, you have to go on living in our world.”
He finally convinces me and we agree that I’ll come to his home next Monday (today is Friday) to rig up a satellite TV connection.
“But there’s one condition,” I say. “Forget about doing it over the intercom. I want to see you. I want to see your home. And, of course, I want to see Delfina.”
“Why?” he asks suspiciously.
“I dunno . . . To find out what kind of beauty it takes to make a man convert himself into a beefsteak.”
Now it’s Tadeo who hesitates. But a hundred and forty television channels and fifty music stations, plus ten hard-porn signals and a universal pay-per-view password, all free, is the sort of bribe that no one, not even a cannibalistic Lacanian psychoanalyst, can resist.
“OK,” he says, and hangs up.
I consider myself the overlord of this territory, but once, up there in the North, I was master of another: regional maintenance for the largest satellite TV company in the world. For years, I hoarded every imaginable pin, serial number, chip, card, and code in a safe in my desk. I migrated to Mexico City with these tools and toys after the first outbreaks of the epidemic. These small lucky charms represent the multipurpose treasure chest that I sometimes use as coinage: for example, I wager with them in the skateboarders’ club on Eugenia, where young punks have invented a version of the old monster truck jumps, this time over rows of the recumbent bodies of cannibalistic flowers. We lay bets on who can jump farthest on his skateboard. The most skillful make it all the way across. The majority return with their calves looking like ground meat due to virus-laden bites.
Things could be worse. Sometimes, in that racetrack of corpses and imbeciles, I win enough for a reinforced rubber and a toothless hooker to suck my dick. And when I’m on a losing streak, I pay my debts by installing a satellite television connection in some residential building in the neighborhood. On a bad day I might have to climb sixty feet above decomposing flesh without a safety harness. They all want to go on zapping: surfing on a wave of a hundred and forty channels while the love of their life takes slices out of their flesh. All of them. Even the dead ones.